Willow Smith Looks Ahead to Touring With Childish Gambino, Looks Back on ‘Whip My Hair,’ and… Baby Turtles?

When we last heard from Willow — the mononymous title for Willow Smith, daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith — she was bald, boldly rocking out, and conquering the prog-power-pop game with 2022’s loud “Coping Mechanism” for Roc Nation, her label home since 2010’s pop hit, “Whip My Hair.”

More from Variety

Two years can make a big difference.

With her just-released new album “Empathogen,” Willow made radical changes to her music resulting in dreamy, complex, jazzy strain of R&B with equally intricate, soul-searching lyrics and a more nuanced vocal approach. The 23-year-old also left Roc Nation — her label since 2010 — and signed with Three Six Records for “Empathogen.” She also published her debut historic novel — “Black Shield Maiden,” tale of African warriors in the world of the Vikings, written with Jess Hendel — and earlier this week was announced as the opening act on the North American leg of Childish Gambino’s “New World” tour, all just days after attending NYC’s Met Ball with a surprisingly minimalist look in the face of that ceremony’s ostentatiousness.

Variety caught up with Willow in Los Angeles to discuss “Empathogen” and the rest of her busy spring schedule.

How are you feeling about touring with Childish Gambino?

Childish Gambino is one of the most prolific visionaries of this generation. It’s an honor to be with him in any shape or form.

Your look for last week’s Met Ball featured a design that was gorgeously minimalistic, black and austere – so different from everyone else’s over-the-top displays.

I think that the best, most striking art – music or fashion – has the spirit of simplicity and elegance about it. I’m super grateful to be able to have worked with Dior and Vernon Francois who did something sculptural for my head.

You’re very much your own person. At this point, do you exist far from the life of your parents – as an artist and as a woman?

I will love my family with all of my being and my spirit forever. I think that as soon as you’re born, you’re an individual who needs to make their own decisions. We all have to figure out how to be adults and live our lives as individuals. But I will forever wish to be close to my family in every way.

With your second album, “The 1st” (2017), you began to write and produce almost every element of your records — really quite young. What led to that decision?

I knew that I didn’t want to put a full album out that was not made in that spirit. Even “Ardipithecus” (2015) was produced by me, for better or worse, with several songs produced by my brother Trey. When ‘The 1 st’ came about, I had cellists, violinists and other musicians come in to co-create the album with me. Dev Hynes, too, worked with me on one of the songs – an amazing musician who I’d love to work with again. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to start making albums if they weren’t coming directly from me.

The covers of “The 1st” and “Empathogen” look similar. Was that intentional?
No. A friend of mine took that photo for “The 1st” unexpectedly, and it is very candid. For “Empathogen,” someone I really love was on the set with me, said something to make me laugh, and that photo got snapped.  Another candid. That wasn’t what I wanted the cover to be, but I’m happy that we caught that moment. The colors and the tones are similar on both of those albums too.

As a writing process, do you write from the rhythm up?
That’s very insightful – it’s true, even though the sonic landscapes of those albums are different. When I work by myself, I start with melody. When I work with my good friend and producer Chris Greatti, we usually start with a rhythm. Those rhythms, however, are definitely the throughline between both those albums.

“Lately I Feel Everything” from 2021,” had some of the same prog-pop feel of “Coping Mechanism.” Before that, you trafficked in somewhat of an alt-soul sound. How and why did you get in and out of that rock-ish sound, then back into the jazzy R&B of “Empathogen?”
I think of “Lately” as more of a pop album, it’s not my favorite. “Coping Mechanism” was a full prog-metal album, totally.  I made “Lately” during a very confusing stage of my life. We grow and evolve as people and musicians, and I’m not looking down on “Lately.” Just honest. “Coping Mechanism” was made with Greatti, and we opened each other minds to different ways of approaching these songs. I never think about genre, only about the content. After “Coping,” I knew that I didn’t want to do another rock record. I wanted to dive into my musicianship, be present, and study other musicians who moved people.

When you say ‘musicians who moved people’ who do you mean?
John Coltrane. Alice Coltrane. Ella Fitzgerald. Miles Davis. Hiatus Kaiyote. Dirty Projectors. These amazing musicians did something different and changed people’s minds and hearts.

As you went into that sphere of influence and found a smokier sound for “Empathogen,” were you changing the face of your lyrical output simultaneously as the new album has healing and self-acceptance at its center?
Yes. The lyrics, the content, of “Coping Mechanism” was about heartbreak and anger – what I was feeling at that time. You have to feel that and let that out. With ‘Empathogen,’ my emotional shift came with a musical shift to something softer and introspective into a more complex space. I was in a place of healing and trying to find the truest expression of healing.

Your softer, more nuanced, even whispery vocals follow that feeling of healing.

I’m trying to bring people in, rather than explode outwards.

“It’s like a turtle in the sand/Making way to the ocean/Almost meeting the end/Because the birds are in motion.” What’s your take on that lyric?
Have you ever seen baby turtles hatch? They’re tiny and in the sand. They have to break through the shell, and through the sand to get to the water. And the ocean is a long way off. The birds known when the turtles are going to hatch because that’s nature. Life is fragile. I wanted to create that imagery.

I’ve no idea in what order the songs were crafted, but “b i g f e e l i n g s” feels like a finale, a perfect last song.
The making of “b i g f e e l i n g s,” as such, was completely intentional. I usually go into the studio without knowing exactly what I’m doing, but that songs came to – and stayed with – for nearly two weeks before the session. I had opportunities to record it earlier, but waited until the right moment and the right musicians to do it. It really does feel like the confusing, slightly ominous, but extremely beautiful complexity of the human mind. I’m proud of it. It’s my favorite song of mine to date.

In terms of observing and preserving empathy, why did you choose an album title connected to psychoactive drugs, MDMA, and the possibilities of the therapeutic?
I love this. Empathogens are certain molecular compounds like MDMA and psilocybin. Certain plant medicines, when you ingest them, they have a deep connection to life. They open your heart to a deeper sense of empathy. While making this album, I was going through a healing process. Going to a deeper place and experiencing different ceremonial environments. Soaking in the beauty of ancient traditions. I wanted my title to express that.

Why did you choose St. Vincent and Jon Batiste to work on “Empathogen?”
For all of my teenage and adult life, St. Vincent has been an insane inspiration.  I just knew that for this album, I was finally at a place where I was comfortable singing with her. She’s so insightful, and she felt that as well it was a real meeting of hearts. Jon? I have such affinity for the boundless joy he brings to his music. Starting my album with his voice… what a beautiful open door to the story I wanted to tell with this album. Their hearts inform my message.

Other than “Ancient Girl,” can you draw a line between “Empathogen” and your novel “Black Shield Maiden” and its connection to African warriors in the world of the Vikings?
I wasn’t intentionally thinking that. What I’ve been realizing is that both the album and the novel are expressions of my love of being a Black woman in so many ways. Even me with my natural hair on the “Empathogen” cover, and my deep study of Black people who have lifted the culture in such positive ways – that’s a huge throughline. That story got me because I am a nerd, first and foremost, extremely interested in the way humans and societies have evolved, the way culture was created. I’m also obsessed with the show “Vikings” on the History Channel. One day I was just sitting and watching it, and poring over the question of whether there could have been Black Vikings, or did Vikings encounter Black and Brown people. That was a weird thing to think, and I just started to do all the research around Erik the Red and this warrior named Thorhall the Hunter – an amazing huntsman who could hear water and was extremely gifted in the ways of nature. He was said to have been Brown-skinned with Afro-textured hair. When you’re an artist writing historical fiction, you take what you can get.

Your professional journey went from being the youngest person to sign to Roc Nation to leaving there this year for independence and Three Six Records. Do you feel as if you had the benefit of empathy from your record labels – the benefit of understanding – to make it all happen for you?

I feel as if every artist, at one point, has felt misunderstood. That is why we persist and evolve – hopefully for the better. I definitely think that I am way better now at expressing exactly what it is that I want. Also, it is no one’s responsibility but your own to make your vision come to life in the way you want it to.

Thinking of your upcoming tour and the complexity of your new material, do you plan to rearrange your older material?
I think that I have always tried to tell the truth in my music, whether I was 13 or 23, or 8 and 23. I even look back at “Whip My Hair” and, when I listen to its lyrics, the message is the same as now, the same as I always wanted to say: Live through your heart and don’t allow people to tell you that’s wrong. Encouraging others to be true to themselves has always been my case, no matter what book, album or genre I do that in.  That’s only if I stay authentic, which… well, I’m not planning on getting fake any time soon.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.